Mayoral politics on Monday put off until after the April 7 runoff a decision on where to locate President Barack Obama’s presidential library as the Chicago Plan Commission rubber-stamped the transfer of park land to the city.
The delay was a political blow to Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The former White House chief of staff has been working hand-in-glove with the University of Chicago and the Obama Library Foundation and wanted the Obama’s to make a decision before the election to demonstrate Emanuel’s ability to deliver the coveted prize for Chicago.
Obama has endorsed Emanuel and flew to Chicago days before the Feb. 24 election to help get him over the finish line.
But when Jesus “Chuy” Garcia managed to force a runoff, Obama was confronted with a political reality he did not anticipate when the March site selection deadline was announced last year: Emanuel is in serious jeopardy of becoming a one-term mayor.
Garcia initially opposed the use of park land for the Obama library before changing his mind to avoid alienating African-American voters who are expected to decide the runoff.
The Obama library foundation doesn’t want to deal with the uncertainty of Chicago’s mayoral politics.
It needs a guarantee of unwavering support from Garcia that it has not yet received and assurances that local assistance promised will be delivered. If that means denying Emanuel a pre-election gift, so be it.
“I’m not worried about it either way. We just have to put our best foot forward, do the best proposal we possibly can and see what happens,” said Susan Sher, the former city corporation counsel now spearheading the University of Chicago’s bid. Sher is the former chief of staff to Michelle Obama.
Even though the immediate deadline has been lifted, the Emanuel-appointed Plan Commission forged ahead anyway—by authorizing the transfer of up to 21 acres of land in either Washington or Jackson Parks from the Chicago Park District to the city.
The Washington Park site is the overwhelming favorite. The 21-acre site is bounded by King Drive on the west, East Garfield Boulevard on the south and South Ellsworth Drive on the east and southeast.
The Jackson Park site involves roughly 20 acres that runs from Stony Island to Cornell and East Hayes Drive to the Midway Plaisance.
If the First Family decides not to build the library in Chicago, the land in two historic parks designed by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted would revert back to the Chicago Park District.
The outcome of Monday’s Plan Commission vote was never in doubt.
But it gave proponents another chance to champion the “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity and critics an opportunity to decry the “land grab” by the South Side’s largest land owner.
Friends of the Parks President Cassandra Francis said the “unparalleled transfer of historic public park land” to the city for use “by a private institution” sets a “dangerous precedent” for Chicago.
“We refuse to accept that the only place to put the Obama presidential library is in a decades-old historic public park. We find it problematic to support the selective amputation of the historic public park to build a massive building, especially when there is enough premium, non-park land in which to build, including the 11-acre University of Chicago, CTA and city-owned site across the street,” Francis said.
Friends of the Parks has filed a lawsuit to stop Emanuel from transferring 17 acres of lakefront park land to movie mogul George Lucas to build an interactive museum.
Francis hinted strongly that yet another lawsuit is in the works. She noted that all museums in the parks in the last 50 years were either placed into “existing buildings or within footprints of existing buildings…They were not newly-constructed buildings” in the parks.
“The parks are irreplaceable assets worth fighting for and we defend this legacy fiercely — sometimes even through the courts when necessary. We have great concern that Chicago’s park land will be available to the highest bidder in the future and will threaten the life of our neighborhoods,” Francis said.
“Now, we are all discussing Washington and Jackson Parks. But tomorrow, we could be discussing Lincoln Park, Garfield Park or your park elsewhere in the city or somewhere across the country. Our partners from across the nation are watching your vote very closely as this sets negative precedents for parks across the entire country.”
Sher said the U. of C. has already offered the five or six acres it owns west of Martin Luther King Drive.
But she said, “The difficulty is that those 11 acres, which include CTA-owned and city-owned land, abut the Green Line. There are setback requirements. I’m not saying it’s impossible. But it would be difficult to do it all on the city-, CTA- and university-owned land. But we have offered that.”
Sher sloughed off Francis’ warning about the “dangerous precedent” that would be set by transferring park land to the city.
“You’ve already got museums in Lincoln Park. You’ve already got museums in all the parks. There are eleven museums in the parks. There’s a long and wonderful tradition of museums in the parks. They were talking about Central Park. The Metropolitan Museum is in Central Park. So, it’s not just in Chicago. This is a very long established history and it’s a good one. Museums bring people to the parks and let’s them enjoy the parks more,” she said.
Emanuel has defended his decision to replace just five of the 21 acres if the Obama’s choose the Washington Park or Jackson Park sites.
“Given that the building will deal with four-to-five acres, we will replace that, acre for acre, and make the open space whole,” the mayor said after introducing the land transfer in late January.
“That’s a win-win situation. We get the presidential library — the economic impact, the jobs, the cultural and educational enrichment that happens for the city as well as address concerns [about] open space. It’s specific to the building and I think that’s the right way to go.”